Oslo and Gothenburg: A Tale of Two Natural History Museums

I’ve been to a lot of natural history museums over the years, which is odd, because they’re not necessarily the museums I gravitate to – if I have limited time in a city, I would much rather visit somewhere unique or quirky than go to the type of museum you could see anywhere. But sometimes I just end up there anyway, maybe because they have some type of rare dinosaur bones Marcus wants to see, or a really unusual (usually derpy) piece of taxidermy I can’t miss. This is basically what happened in both Oslo and Gothenburg. I’ll start with Oslo, even though it is the less interesting of the two.

Oslo’s Natural History Museum didn’t look all that enticing, but it was only a short walk away from the Munch Museum through a rather lovely botanical garden, we got in for free anyway with the Oslo Pass (otherwise 120 kr. Yikes, don’t pay that!), and they had a T-Rex (named Stan) that Marcus was keen to see. One of the museum buildings (the geology one) appears to be closed for construction, but we only really cared about the animal building anyway. Stan is in the first gallery when you walk in, just past a staircase lined with one of the most disgusting giant crabs I’ve ever seen (I’ll spare you a photo, but its legs were legit six feet long).

 

The rest of the museum was fairly standard natural history fare, but someone really went to a lot of effort with the tableaux, right down to carefully painting in white bird shit on all the rocks in the scenes featuring birds. There were also buttons you could press throughout to hear the calls of the birds on display, and in general this section felt quite modern compared to what you normally get in a natural history museum, marred only by all the bratty bratty children running amok and fighting each other right in the middle of the museum. I get that Scandinavians are laid-back parents, but c’mon, at least teach your children how to behave in a damn museum. This wasn’t even in a special kids’ section, it was the main gallery, with glass all around. If you’re just visiting Oslo, this museum is not worth a special trip unless you REALLY like natural history, and even then, definitely don’t go if you have to pay full price. 2.5/5.

 

So we’ll leave the Oslo Natural History Museum, and head to Gothenburg’s Naturhistoriska, which is pretty much the archetype of the old fashioned museum. Gothenburg was about fifteen degrees colder than Oslo, rainy, and unbelievably windy, so getting to Naturhistoriska was already a much less pleasant experience than getting to the museum in Oslo, plus we had to walk up a big-ass hill to actually reach the museum. However, I was the one that wanted to go see it, for a very special piece of taxidermy that I’ll get to in a minute, so I sucked it up. At least Gothenburg’s natural history museum is free, albeit with an air of must and neglect.

 

Nothing in here was in English, but I don’t think that really matters when you’re just looking at dead animals. And wow, what a lot of dead animals! I like taxidermy a lot more than most people (and definitely way more than most vegetarians do), but the sheer volume in here made even me feel slightly ill, especially when we got to the bird section, where there must have been thousands of dead birds. I mean, this stuff was clearly Victorian (or even older, since it was established in 1833), as you can probably tell from the absolutely terrible (delightful) quality of much of the taxidermy, but a hell of a lot of animals had to die to make it. Also, the cases don’t look like they’ve been updated since 1833, though they clearly must have been since the museum has only been in its present location since 1923.

 

And now we come to the whole reason I had to see this museum – the blue whale, or Malm Whale, to give it its proper name. This is clearly the star attraction, as there are signs pointing to it throughout the museum, and it has its own hall (the Whale Hall). The juvenile whale was beached outside Gothenburg in 1865, and some fisherman basically tortured the poor thing for two days until it finally died. The carcass was sold to August Malm, the curator at the museum, who decided to preserve it and display it. He even tried to take it on tour, but that was less successful, and it ended up back in the museum. It is the only preserved blue whale in the world (thankfully), and if that isn’t interesting enough, it was built with a seating area inside, which was originally just generally open to the public until a couple was caught having sex inside in the 1930s. It still apparently opens on special occasions such as Walpurgis Night or Christmas, when Santa sits inside, which really must be something to see. I felt awful for this poor whale, but I can’t deny that it is probably the coolest piece of taxidermy I’ve ever seen – the skin is held together with rivets for god’s sake – and as grisly as it is, I would jump at the chance to go inside.

 

As you might expect, Malm Whale was definitely the highlight, but there were a hell of a lot more dead animals to get through, of varying degrees of quality. I did enjoy the Nessie equivalent of Gothenburg, especially as I assume nothing had to die to create her. I had to skip the rather extensive arthropod section (I literally had to shield my eyes when I walked through. Coincidentally, I had just had a nightmare about giant lobsters the night before, and they actually had one in this museum. My crustacean phobia is no joke), and mammals and birds were both far too extensive, though there were certainly plenty of characterful specimens (how sassy is that monkey? Love him!).

      

This museum is definitely not for the faint-hearted (I feel like I say that a lot), but the Malm Whale manages to be both depressing and awesome, and for me made it worth the trip (I still 100% want to go inside if I get the chance). It is free, so this one is worth checking out I think, if, of course, you can take the sight of thousands of dead animals, many of them now endangered. I really would be hard-pressed to name a more old school museum than this, right down to the smells, and I definitely think there’s something to be said for the experience of walking through something this Victorian-feeling (though Victorians would definitely not have put up with the children turning cartwheels(!) through the museum, inches from a glass case. I mean, really?!) – until it got to the point of dead animal overload, I was really enjoying myself. 3.5/5.

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16 comments

  1. Now you’ve done it. Winter was not my preferred time to visit Norway, but how can I possibly pass up Santa in the whale? Do you think they let kids (or small adults acting child-like) sit on his lap????

    1. The Malm Whale is in Sweden, but yeah, winter is definitely not a great time for any of Scandinavia, considering that it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Gothenburg in July! I have to say that I’m much more intrigued by the Walpurgis Night whale opening than the Santa one – do they do witch stuff in the whale? – but I would certainly hope there’d be an opportunity for photos inside the whale no matter what.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I can’t find a UK release date anywhere, but it feels like the kind of odd documentary I might end up finding on an in-flight entertainment system at some point, like the one on show chickens I saw last year.

  2. I had no idea anyone had ever taxidermied a whale. Oh my. I have mixed feelings about all those stuffed animals. I don’t go to zoos anymore, because I think most of those animals might prefer death to living in captivity. Once they are dead, it seems such an indignity to put them on display like that. But then, I found The Body exhibit endlessly fascinating. But those people knowingly donated their bodies.

    1. I tend to be less bothered about what happens to things after they’re dead, because they’re dead (honestly, I’d be quite happy for someone to stuff me Jeremy Bentham style), it’s more the fact that they were killed for the sake of taxidermy in the first place, in many cases. But these were primarily Victorian examples, and with stuff that old, I think it’s probably just better to preserve it at this point. Better that than making new ones.

  3. Natural History museums are always interesting and so different but never seen one that rivals the London one. Didn’t visit the one in Oslo due to time and cost but looks okay. The Blue Whale is impressive isn’t it? It is sad to think of all the animals that died but the fact is they are dead so displaying them now is just educational and those Victorian ones are well worth keeping.

    1. I completely agree, I just think it can be a bit depressing to be confronted with such an overwhelming number of them! To be honest, I’m not that big on the NHM in London – it’s a gorgeous building, but it’s much too crowded and touristy (they seriously have more shops and cafes than displays), and the taxidermy isn’t nearly bad enough for my tastes. I like a quieter museum with an odder assortment of taxidermy.

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